Syngenta – a step closer to “owning” our food

Zurich, 11.08.2005 - Biotech company Syngenta has taken a huge step closer to “owning” seeds in the future, by filing 15 global patent applications on several thousand gene sequences from rice and other highly important crop plants (1). This would mean, in practice, that the company would be able to determine price, access, research and re-use of seeds in the future. On a meeting with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) this week (2), Syngenta refused to drop its so-called ‘megagenomic’ patents.

“With these patents Syngenta is claiming the work of breeders and farmers from the past centuries as the company’s own invention. The attempt to monopolise thousands of gene sequences from most important crop plants in one rush is nothing less than a theft of common goods,“ says Tina Goethe from Swissaid. “Not to the mention the fact that these patents could block future research to a large extent.”

According to Syngenta patent experts, the company will claim all gene sequences that could be of commercial interest, thus trying really to get most of the 15 patent applications granted. By claiming the genetic information of rice, the company aims to monopolise also all similar gene sequences in any other useful plants, enabling Syngenta and other companies to determine prices and access to all kinds of seeds (3). The company is also trying to patent the use of the plants in food and animal feed. The only commitment Syngenta was able to give in the meeting was not to follow this kind of patents in least developed countries

“These patents must never be granted. If the company follows its claims, they should expect public protests and legal actions against it. Politicians should initiate a legal framework to stop companies such as Syngenta, Monsanto, DuPont and Bayer to gain control on genetic resources,“ says François Meienberg from Berne Declaration.

The meeting with Syngenta also revealed that the interest of the company in the controversial project of genetically engineered ‘Golden Rice’ was primarily lead by commercial reasons. As the company engaged with the project Syngenta presented Golden Rice as the most effective solution to malnutrition in developing countries as it is enhanced with Vitamin A-related substances.

In his e-mail sent to NGOs before the meeting, Adrian Dubock, head of Biotechnology ventures in Syngenta, states: “Syngenta’s original commercial interest (discontinued for now, but not necessarily for ever) was for sales in the industrialised countries of nutritionally enhanced crops, included, but not limited to rice.“ According to Dubock, the patent on the GE rice will not be dropped because “Our shareholders wouldn’t thank us if we had forgone that possibility.” Yet the company claims there are no commercial interests in this technology at the moment.

“This statement clearly shows a commercial background of this so-called humanitarian project. It didn’t mean to help people in developing countries: the primary goal was to benefit shareholders. The whole project is based on a concept of misleading the public,” concluded Greenpeace International campaigner Christoph Then.

1) As the German NGO "No Patents On Life!“ shows in its recent research. According to Syngenta, some patent applications will be dropped for technical or economical reasons but they will try to have most of them granted in at least the United States and Europe.

2) Participating NGOs: Berne Declaration (Switzerland), Swissaid (Switzerland), the German NGO ”No Patents on Life“ and Greenpeace. The meeting was organised after the NGOs had made public already four of the 15 patent applications during the AGM of Syngenta in April 2005. (add link to our report and IPR from April on our homepage)

3) Gene sequences in many crops are very similar. With these patents Syngenta claims for any genes with the same structure in any plants.